Suicide Prevention: What Coworkers Can Do

Sadly, nearly everyone knows someone who has died from or been affected by suicide. In 2020, there were 45,979 deaths and an estimated 1.2 million attempts of suicide. That same year, suicide was the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 20-34 and the 4th leading cause of death for ages 35-44.

But suicide can be prevented.

Suicide Prevention- What Coworkers Can Do

As an employee, you spend more waking hours with coworkers than most family members do, which allows you to play a critical role in noticing whether someone is struggling. The key to helping someone during a crucial time in their life is being aware and knowing what to do.

Watch for the following risk factors and call or text 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, when you are concerned about someone.

Risk Factors for Suicide

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the most significant risk factors include:

  • Prior suicide attempt(s)
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Mood and anxiety disorders, e.g., depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Access to a means to kill oneself, i.e., lethal weapons

While you may spend a lot of time together, you may not witness these outright suicide risk factors at work unless your coworker discusses them openly. Instead, consider how these risk factors may be exhibited on the job, such as:

  • Demonstrating a sudden lack of interest in the quality of their work
  • Coming into work hungover or strung out
  • Having excessive absences
  • Becoming easily and excessively agitated or overly sad about feedback when former responses were more receptive

Please note that people with more than one risk factor are typically at greater risk. And when someone considered at-risk has a “triggering” event (problems with relationships, work, finances, health, or legal challenges), they are more likely to attempt suicide and should meet with a trained mental health professional as soon as possible.

If you’re aware of a coworker at risk for suicide, please encourage them to call or text 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You may also consider contacting your HR department for guidance. While there are laws that prevent an employer from sharing certain personal medical information derived from a medical questionnaire, requested accommodations, and/or personal time off requests, you are allowed and encouraged to share this type of sensitive information about a coworker with HR, particularly when it could save a life.

Immediate Risk Factors for Suicide

It’s possible you may overhear a private phone conversation with another person, see something posted on social media, or have a coworker confide in you about the following:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Talking about feeling trapped, have unbearable pain, or being a burden to others
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
  • Suddenly giving away valuable or sentimental belongings

(Source: Suicide Prevention Resource Center)

When you observe a coworker displaying any of these behaviors, particularly if the behaviors are new, have increased, or seem related to a painful event, call or text 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You may also consider contacting your HR department for more guidance.

How to Respond to Someone at Immediate or Serious Risk

When someone is at risk for suicide, dial 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This allows you to call, text or chat with trained crisis counselors that can help with suicide, mental health, and/or substance use. You can call this number whether you’re the one struggling or if you’re worried about someone else needing crisis support.

If your coworker is at imminent risk, stay with them until you can get more help. If you’re unsure whether they’re at imminent risk, call 988 or contact your HR Department to help you know what to do. Continue to stay in contact with the person and pay attention to how they are doing. While they may not feel comfortable disclosing personal information, you don’t need all the details to offer support and compassion.

For more information, please see the following resources: